SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – A growing number of Muslims in a southern Mexican indigenous city are set to welcome Pope Francis visit next February 15, celebrating their culturally diverse community.
“I wasn’t born a Muslim. I became a Muslim in 1995. I was the first one in my family,” Ibrahim Chechev told Agence France Presse (AFP).
Chechev is the 34-year-old imam of a mosque in San Cristobal de las Casas which is surrounded by the mountains of Chiapas state.
Being one of the Maya Indians, or Tzotzils, the young imam says he found a welcoming atmosphere among the Muslim community, something he missed in the Catholic church.
“They were uncomfortable with our Tzotzil customs, like our language and corn-based food. That’s why I left them,” Chechev said.
While the Mayan Muslims in Chiapas have been receiving extra attention of late, the Tzotzil reversion to Islam has been underway for some time.
It started in the mid 1990s when a group of Spanish Muslims embarked to Latin America to spread the word; their leader was Aureliano Perez, who is now known by the Maya-Muslims as Emir Nafia.
He offered the Zapatista rebels fighting under Subcomandante Marcos, whom Perez supported, an ideological-religious alliance.
Though Marcos was hesitant to enter the pact, the Tzotzil Indians, who made up the majority of the Zapatista rebels, were quite open to Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
When Pope Francis visits San Cristobal and nearby Tuxtla Gutierrez on February 15, he will see a state with a religious mosaic that includes Buddhists, Evangelists and Jews.
“Islam is rising in indigenous communities” in Chiapas, where there is “uncertainty, poverty and marginalization,” said Pedro Faro, director of the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center.
Indigenous groups are drawn by the promise of a “better life,” Faro said.
The number of Muslims in Mexico surged from just 1,421 in 2000 to 3,760 in 2010, while in Chiapas it grew from 45 to 110 in that decade.
Experts believe that there are now 300-500 Muslims in Chiapas.
The growing number of Muslims has been worrying the Catholic church, which sees itself losing control in the city.
Chiapas is the least Catholic state in the world’s second-biggest Roman Catholic country after Brazil.
While 82 percent of Mexico’s population of 120 million people are Catholic, only 58 percent identify with Catholicism in Chiapas, according to the 2010 census.
Pedro Humberto Arriaga, the parish priest in the nearby town of San Juan Chamula, said that, like the indigenous cultures, “Muslims pray out loud and at certain times of the day” and work hard for their communities.
Chechev agrees, noting that before his grandfather converted to Islam, he would “clean his face and feet and would sit to meditate on the floor, giving thanks, several times a day.”
Nevertheless, Muslims have been gaining a growing foothold in the small city.
Women proudly wear their hijabs on the streets.
“The veil doesn’t bother me. It’s part of who I am. I think that it makes me unique compared to the others,” said Guadalupe Gomez, a 20-year-old who took the Arab name Aysha.